Enrollment Drop Forces Schools To Re-Evaluate

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A loss of 112 students in the Payson Unified School District this year will translate into a loss of roughly $450,000 and necessitate a harsh look at providing services to a shrinking district.

The state’s School Facilities Board projects the district’s enrollment will stay flat or slightly decline until 2018. Superintendent Casey O’Brien hopes that the state will resurrect its budget before then, and quell one of the storms flailing Payson schools.

“We’re now a smaller district,” he said. “What we can sustain is not the same as what we could sustain three or four years ago.”

Class sizes could increase and more layoffs could come, but next year’s budget remains too hazy for the district to offer more details.

The numbers aren’t official. The state uses an average enrollment up to the 100th day to determine funding.

Fewer elementary school students account for 83 percent of the decline, and O’Brien speculates that the persistent recession forced many younger families out of town.

The hit at elementary schools will likely play heavily in the reconfiguration committee’s December recommendation. The school board set up the committee in August to address shrinking enrollment. At the time, the most likely option involved organizing elementary schools by grade level instead of location. O’Brien said that the district had too many elementary school-aged children to close an elementary school, although he didn’t rule it out.

On Thursday, when asked if the drop in numbers increased the likelihood of closing a school, O’Brien said the decision wasn’t his. He said the idea remained an option.

The state budget deficit compounds the district’s problem of declining enrollment. Even before state cuts, the district will see a shortfall next year of anywhere from $400,000 to $500,000 because of lost students.

O’Brien said his grasp of next year’s budget will sharpen after Election Day when voters will decide two propositions key in the state’s existing budget proposal.

Proposition 301 would allow the state to sweep $123.5 million in funds meant to purchase land for preservation. Proposition 302 would erase First Things First, a voter-approved initiative that uses a tobacco tax to fund early childhood programs, and allow lawmakers to swipe those funds for balancing the budget.

If those two measures fail, next year’s projected $825 million state deficit will balloon to more than $1 billion. K-12 education absorbs 37 percent of the state’s budget, and lawmakers will likely look to it for cuts.

The election could also usher in a new legislature, new governor, and new Congress, which might affect federal money, including the potential reauthorization of funding for districts surrounded by national forests. A new school board will also take office in January.

Payson schools also await the fate of $500,000 it would receive from the education stimulus bill Congress approved this summer. Arizona has the money, but O’Brien said the state might keep it. Educators around the state believe schools might receive half of the money, O’Brien said. “I think it’s real speculation at this point.”

Even if Payson does receive the influx, the money would last for one year — not long enough to last until the state restores funding.

As the federal money that eased pain for several years fades away, the district must contend with contracting enrollments and budgets.

For now, more questions persist than answers.

“There are a lot of plates spinning on sticks,” said O’Brien.

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